CBSO/Gardner – review

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
The CBSO breathed airy new life into Mendelssohn's homage to the printing press, which also has an unlikely Birmingham connection

Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Hymn of Praise to mark the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press. Just after after its Leipzig premiere in 1841, Mendelssohn came to Birmingham for its second performance: did someone mention to him the city's own John Baskerville, Gutenberg's spiritual son?

This performance, one of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's series celebrating the Mendelssohn connection with their principal guest conductor Edward Gardner, swept away any notion of this as a stodgy, ponderous work. In the opening orchestral sinfonia, it was not that the meanings of the instructions maestoso and religioso were ignored; simply that any heaviness was dissipated, the music invested instead with airy, almost transparent textures and a lightness of step. Even the dotted rhythm of the recurring trombone theme took on a lively spring. Sometimes it is difficult to equate the composer of the Octet with his later work, but this had exactly that elan.

The CBSO chorus's considerable numbers risked being a little too resonant, but the sound was glorious; their contrapuntal lines were cleanly articulated, and they coped well with Gardner's lively tempi. Seamlessly moving from one number into the next also helped things flow as never before. Tenor Benjamin Hulett and sopranos Sophie and Mary Bevan all projected the English words with intelligent, expressively shaped phrasing, and, in Gardner's authoritative hands, new life was breathed into a work that suddenly seemed wrongly neglected.

By way of preface, Gardner had brought a similar airiness to Mendelssohn's overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, its opening stillness wonderfully controlled. The fresh, bright girls' voices of the CBSO Youth Chorus sang his Two Motets, Op 39, with elan and two solo sopranos emerging in the Tulerunt Dominum to show great promise. An uplifting evening.

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Contributor

Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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